Black September in Jordan
September 1970 is known as the Black September in the Arab history and sometimes is referred to as the "era of regrettable events". It was a month when Hashemite King Hussein of Jordan moved to quash an attempt of Palestinian organizations to overturn his monarchy. The armed conflict lasted until July 1971.
After the Six Day War, many Arab groups were looking for ways to "restore honor" or advance their causes. The Palestinians constituted a majority of Jordan's population and had support by many Arab regimes, most notably by Egypt's President Nasser. Numerous times, Israel was hit with cross-border attacks by the so-called fedayeen (guerillas).
In response to a series of attacks originated from Jordanian territory, the Israel Defense Forces entered a settlement of Karameh on March 21, 1968. Prime Minister of Israel Levi Eshkol announced that the aim of the operation was to prevent "a new wave of terror". In the battle, 128 (some sources cite up to 170) Palestinians were killed. With the help of Jordanian artillery, 28 Israeli soldiers were killed and 80 wounded, the IDF also lost four tanks.
Yassir Arafat claimed this as a victory (in Arabic language, "karameh" is "honor") and quickly became a national hero who dared to confront Israel, and masses of young Arabs joined the ranks of his group Fatah. Under pressure, Ahmad Shukeiri resigned from the PLO leadership and in July 1968, Fatah joined and soon controlled the PLO.
In Palestinian enclaves and refugee camps in Jordan, the police and army were losing their authority as uniformed PLO militants openly carried weapons, set up checkpoints and attempted to collect taxes. During the November 1968 negotiations, a seven-point agreement was reached between King Hussein and Palestinian organizations:
- Members of these organizations were forbidden to walk around the cities armed and in uniform
- They were forbidden to stop civilian vehicles in order to conduct searches
- They were forbidden to recruit young men who were fit to serve in the Jordanian army
- They were required to carry Jordanian identity papers
- Their vehicles were required to bear Jordanian license plates
- Crimes committed by members of the Palestinian organizations would be investigated by the Jordanian authorities
- Disputes between the Palestinian organizations and the government would be settled by a joint council of representatives of the king and of the PLO.
The agreement did not hold. The PLO was becoming a state within a state in Jordan and between mid-1968 and the end of 1969, no less than five hundred violent clashes occurred between the Palestinian guerillas and Jordanian security forces. Acts of violence against civilians and kidnappings frequently took place. Chief of the Jordanian royal court Zeid Rifai claimed that "the fedayeen killed a soldier, beheaded him, and played soccer with his head in the area where he used to live." (Source: Arafat's War by Efraim Karsh, p. 28)
The PLO also continued attacking Israel from Jordanian territory without coordination with Jordanian army, causing heavy Israeli retaliations.
King Hussein visited the US President Richard Nixon, and the Egyptian President Nasser in February 1970. Upon his return, the King published a ten-point edict, restricting activities of the Palestinian organizations. On February 11, clashes broke out between Jordanian security forces and the Palestinian groups in the streets of Amman, resulting in about 300 deaths. Trying to prevent the violence spinning out of control, King Hussein's announcement "We are all fedayeen" was accompanied by firing the interior minister who was hostile to the Palestinians.
Armed Palestinians set up a parallel system of visa controls, customs checks and checkpoints in Jordanian cities and airports, and added more tensions to already polarized Jordanian society and the army.
In July, Egypt and Jordan accepted the US-backed "Rogers Plan" that called for a cease fire in the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt and for Israel's withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967, according to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. The radical organizations in the PLO, George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Naif Hawatmeh's Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, decided to undermine Hussein's pro-Western regime. Arafat did not stop the radicals; nor did he openly join the call to overthrow King Hussein.
Between February and June of 1970, about a thousand lives were lost in Jordan alone due to the conflict.
Events of September, 1970
On September 1, 1970, an attempt to kill the king failed. On September 6, three planes were hijacked by PFLP: a SwissAir and a TWA in Zarqa and a BOAC in Cairo, on September 9, a British Airways plane at Amman, the passengers were held hostage. The PFLP announced that the hijackings was designed "to teach the Americans a lesson because of their long-standing support of Israel". The planes were demonstratively blown up in front of TV cameras. Directly confronting and angering the King, the rebels declared Irbid area a "liberated region".
On September 16, King Hussein declared martial law. The next day, Jordanian tanks (the 60th armored brigade) attacked the headquarters of Palestinian organizations in Amman; the army also attacked camps in Irbid, Salt, Sweileh and Zarqa. Then the head of Pakistani training mission to Jordan, General Zia ul Hak, took command of the 2nd division.
The armored troops were inefficient in narrow city streets, and after first casualties they resorted to unobserved shelling. Soon, many city blocks were left with no electricity, food or water. Some Palestinians deserted from the Jordanian army. Brigadier Bajahat Muhaisein (a Jordanian who had a Palestinian wife) quit.
On September 18, Syrian armored forces began invasion into Jordan. In three days, with support of Palestine Liberation Army, they were the size of a division and were met by the 40th armored brigade of Jordanian army. In addition to diplomatic efforts, as a sign of warning, Israel Air Force planes made low overflights.
Soon Syrian troops began to withdraw. Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian defense minister at the time, later said that Syria invaded Jordan in order to protect the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, both Hussein and Arafat attended the meeting of leaders of Arab countries in Cairo and on September 27 Hussein signed an agreement that treated both sides as equals and acknowledged the right of the Palestinian organizations to operate in Jordan. The next day, Egypt's Nasser died of a sudden heart attack.
Estimates of the number Palestinians killed in the ten days of Black September range from five to over ten thousand, although exact numbers are unknown. The reporters were concentrated at the Intercontinental hotel, away from the action. Major radio stations, BBC Arabic service and Voice of the Arabs from Cairo were both pro-Palestinian and reported alleged genocide.
The situation in Syria became unstable and soon Hafez al-Assad overthrew the civilian government and became the ruler of Syria.
On October 31, Arafat whose position was weakened, had to sign another agreement (similar to one of November 1968) that returned control over Jordan to the King, requiring the dismantlement of Palestinian militant bases and banning their members from carrying unconcealed weapons. At a meeting of the Palestinian National Council that followed, both PFLP and DFLP groups refused to accept this agreement and instead, accepted the proposal that Jordan would be a part of a Palestinian state to replace both Jordan and Israel.
The violations continued and on November 9, Jordanian prime minister Wafsi al-Tal signed an order to confiscate illegal weapons. By January 1971, the army strengthened its control over the cities. Another agreement regarding surrendering weapons was signed and broken. After the discovery of illegal arms warehouse in Irbid in the Spring, the army placed a curfew and began arresting the rebels. On June 5, several leading Palestinian organizations including Arafat's Fatah, called on Radio Baghdad to overthrew King Hussein as the only way to prevent "a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan".
The army regained control over the last remaining rebel strongholds, mountainous cities of Jerash and Ajloun. As King Hussein declared "absolute quiet" in the kingdom, Fatah members announced that they prefer to die rather than surrender. Seventy-two (some sources cite two hundred) of fleeing Palestinian militants chose to cross the Jordan river to West Bank and surrender to the Israel Defense Forces.
The number of casualties in what resembled a civil war, are estimated in tens of thousands, both sides were involved in intentional killing of civilians. It was a turning point for Jordanian identity, as the kingdom embarked on the program of "Jordanization" of the society.
Palestinian militants were driven out to Lebanon. See Lebanon Civil War. The terrorist group Black September, was established by Fatah. On November 28 1971, in Cairo, four of its members assassinated Wafsi al-Tal. See also Munich massacre.